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The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)

Chapter 1: The Old Race and the New

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Chapter 1: The Old Race and the New

THE STORY OF NEW ZEALAND is rich beyond that of most young countries in episodes of adventure and romance. Australia's pioneering-work was of a different quality from ours, mainly because the nation-makers of our neighbour encountered no powerful military race of indigenes to dispute the right of way. The student of New Zealand history seeking for foreign parallels and analogies must turn to the story of the white conquest in America for the record of human endeavour that most closely approaches the early annals of these Islands. There certainly is a remarkable similarity, in all but landscape, between the old frontier life in British North America and the United States and the broad features of the violent contact between European and Maori in our country. The New England back-woodsman and the far-out plainsman were faced with many of the life-and-death problems which confronted our New Zealand settlers on the Taranaki and Waikato and East Coast borders. In reading such fascinating books as “The Conspiracy of Pontiac,” “French Pioneers in the New World,” or “The Winning of the West,” the family likeness of the adventures of the pathfinder and the forest fighter to the New Zealand life of the “sixties” is irresistibly forced upon the mind. There was the same dual combat with wild nature and with untamed man; there was the necessity in each land for soldierly skill; the same display of all grades of human courage; much of the same tale of raid and foray, siege, trail-hunting, and ambuscade. There was as wide a difference in frontier and forest fighting-ability between the Imperial troops of the “forties” and early “sixties” and the soldier settlers who scoured the bush after Titokowaru and Te Kooti as there was between General Braddock's unfortunate regular troops of 1755 and the provincial scouts and hunters who learned how to beat the Red Indian at his own game, and later to defy British armies. It is to the pages of Francis Parkman, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Cabot Lodge that the New Zealander must turn for historic parallels in the story of the nations, rather than to those of Macaulay, Green, or Freeman.

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The inevitable shock of battle between the tribesman of Aotearoa and the white man who coveted and needed his surplus lands is a feature of our history which has had no small influence upon our national existence and national type. It coloured our story as no other element could; tragic as it was, it at least redeemed our history from the commonplaces of a sleek commercialism. The white adventurer let go his anchor on these shores with the Briton's characteristic assertion of superiority over the brown races of mankind; the white settler of our beginnings too often exhibited an ignorant contempt for the mat-girt or blanket-swathed aboriginal. The Maori, for his part, swaggering through the settlements with double-barrel gun and tomahawk, ready to fight to the death for a punctilio and avenge in blood some absurd breach of personal tapu, did not trouble to conceal his scorn for the pakeha whose only concern was huckstering and profit-making. Early Governments truckled to savage insolence for the sake of peace; the Maori, sometimes for the same reason, shrugged off the insults and swindlings of the coarser grade of white with a contemptuous “Hei aha!”—“What does it matter!” But it was in the last and unavoidable test, when bayonet met long-handled tomahawk and when British artillery battered Maori stockades, that the two races came to gauge each other's manly calibre, and came, finally, to respect each other for the capital virtues that only trial of war can bring to mutual view. For all the reverses that befell the ill-planned and unskilfully conducted British efforts in the field in the early campaigns, the shrewd Maori soon divested himself of his illusions of military superiority; he came to realize that he had at last met his match, and henceforth his concern was deep lest the incoming shiploads of whites should wipe him off the face of his ancestral lands. On the European's side the conceit which found expression in the declared opinion that a company of British grenadiers could march from end to end of New Zealand and carry all before them was quickly exchanged for an admission that the naked Maori was a better warrior than the heavily armed British soldier, man for man, in the forest environment in which he had been schooled to arms and the trail from his infancy. Each admitted the other's pre-eminence under certain conditions, and each protagonist came to admire the primal quality of valour in his opponent. The Ngapuhi who—to their own amazement—hurled back assaulting columns of the finest British infantry at Ohaeawai had secret tremors at the spectacle of the forlorn hope's desperate courage; well they knew that in the end they could not hope to prevail over men of such mettle. And the soldier who saw women and even children facing death in a beleaguered redoubt of sod walls, choosing to die with their men rather than surrender, first page 3 marvelled at the devotion of such a race and then came to love them for their savage chivalry. The wars ended with a strong mutual respect, tinged with a real affection, which would never have existed but for this ordeal by battle.

From the days when venturesome trading brigs and schooners lay at uneasy anchor in New Zealand bays, with boarding nettings triced up and carronades loaded, down to the firing of the last shot against Te Kooti in the Urewera Ranges, the story of contact between European and Maori is full of episodes of the quality which makes the true romance. Those episodes, whether isolated adventures or protracted campaigns, may not have presented themselves to the participants in precisely that light; it remains for the present generation, bred up in peaceful occupation of the Maori islands, to appreciate what may be called the poetry of the last century's work and endeavour in New Zealand, as opposed to the more prosaic story of industrial evolution.

In examining these tales of other days and in testing the historical knowledge of the average New Zealander the fact is too apparent that the young generation would be the better for a more systematic schooling in the facts of national pioneer life and achievements which are a necessary foundation for the larger patriotism. Yet the passionate affection with which the Maori clung to his tribal lands is a quality which undeniably tinges the mind and outlook of the farm-bred, country-loving, white New Zealander to-day. The native-born has unconsciously assimilated something of the peculiar patriotism that belongs to the soil; the genius loci of the old frontiers has not entirely vanished from the hills and streams. Not only the tribespeople of Hone Heke and Wiremu Tamehana and Wahanui, but the New Zealander of British descent; may feel the truth which the Sage expressed in “Past and Present”: “The Hill I first saw the sun rise over, when the sun and all things were in their auroral hour, who can divorce me from it? Mystic, deep as the world's centre, are the roots I have struck into my native soil; no tree that grows is rooted so.” And the native-born whose eyes in childhood are daily lifted to Taranaki's high snow-cap, who watches from the farmhouse the morning mists trailing up like the smoke of fairies' camp fires from the gullies of Pirongia, or who sees from afar Ruapehu's icy heliograph flash back the sunrise—this son of New Zealand cannot but come to love the landscape saliencies of his native place with something of the Maori adoration for “my parent the Mountain.”

Regarding these old wars in the light of the ordeal of battle from which the civilized world has lately emerged, the pakeha-Maori conflicts seem chivalrous tournaments. The formidable character of the country in most of the operations, while it page 4 increased the hardships of the campaigns, went to keep the casualties low. As in the wars of British and French in the Canadian forests, described by Parkman in “Montcalm and Wolfe,” “the problem was less how to fight the enemy than how to get at him.” And exasperated Imperial commanders, from Despard down to Cameron and Chute, realized as their columns toiled ponderously and painfully over unmapped country in search of a too-mobile foe, through unroaded swamps, bush, and ranges, and unbridged rivers, the truth of the dictum that geography is two-thirds of military science.

It is curious to discover in the early records how little the military commanders and officials realized the military quality of the Maori. We find, even before New Zealand became a British colony, the Resident at the Bay of Islands, Mr. Busby, declaring in a letter to the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales urging the despatch of a detachment of soldiers to uphold the authority of the Resident and the Ngapuhi confederation of native chiefs, “With regard to the number of troops which it might be necessary to maintain, it would, I think, require little knowledge of military tactics to satisfy one who has witnessed the warfare of the native that one hundred English soldiers would be an overmatch for the united forces of the whole Islands. But in fact there is little risk of even two tribes uniting to oppose them.”*

Equally fatuous was the debate in the Legislative Council at Auckland, in 1842, upon the question of arresting the cannibal chief Taraia for his attack upon the Katikati Maoris at Ongare; it was actually suggested that the old warrior should be served with a summons by a constable in his fortified pa. In 1844, after the tragic blunder of the Wairau, Governor Fitzroy reported of the Wellington and Nelson officials and settlers, “No one appeared disposed to give the natives credit for courage or skill in warfare; no one seemed to doubt but that they would fly before a very small detachment of military; the prevailing feeling appeared to be for a collision.” That collision, when it came in the North, revealed the unsuspected capacity of the natives to meet and defeat—given their own conditions of fighting—the best British troops. While Hone Heke and Kawiti were building their stockades and moulding their bullets for their “fighting friends,” the redcoats, the Polynesian cousins of the Maori, the Tahitians, were fearlessly withstanding the French; and, just as the Ngapuhi speedily undeceived the too-confident Despard, the warriors of the Society Islands falsified the boast of the officer page 5 who, previous to an encounter in rear of Papeete, was heard to declare, “Give me fifty men and I'll march through Tahiti.”

In Hone Heke's day the Maori population so greatly out-numbered the whites, who were here on sufferance, that the confidence of such commanders as Despard and some of the officials and administrators of the hour is inexplicable except on the theory of an overwhelming faith in the white man's military invincibility. A Government return of the native population of New Zealand, laid before the Legislative Council at Auckland in 1845, gave an aggregate of 109,550, being the estimate of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. Of this number 40,000 were put down as proselytes of the Anglican Church missionaries, about 16,000 under the Wesleyans, and about 5,000 were Roman Catholics; all the rest were termed “Pagans.” The Ngapuhi Tribe was estimated to number 12,000, and the Rarawa 4,000; Ngati-Whatua, 2,000; Ngati-Maru (under the famous chief Taraia), 4,000; making in all 22,000 in the North Auckland districts and on the shores of the Hauraki Gulf and about the Thames River. The East Coast population, from Tauranga round to Hawke's Bay, was estimated at 30,000. Waikato, under the great Te Wherowhero, numbered 18,400. In Taranaki proper there were only 2,000 people; there were in South Taranaki 3,000 of the Ngati-Ruanui and other tribes. The Rotorua people mustered 9,000 all told, and the Taupo clans 1,500 (a curiously small estimate). From Wanganui along the west coast of the Wellington Province and round to the country of the Ngati-Kahungunu at Ahuriri (now Napier) there were 21,950 people, of whom Te Rauparaha headed 5,000 in the Otaki and adjacent districts. In the South Island there were 4,700 Maoris, consisting of 1,000 Ngati-Toa (Rauparaha's tribe), chiefly at Cloudy Bay (Wairau), 100 of the vanquished Rangitane, and 3,600 Ngai-Tahu, whose principal chief was Taiaroa, of Otago.

The New-Zealander of the 2nd August, 1845, commenting upon these figures, said that the return showed there were nearly 70,000 natives within three hundred miles of Auckland. “This most important fact,” it added, “should awake vigilance as well as stimulate firmness and decision in the present crisis.”

In 1847 Lieutenant W. Servantes, interpreter to the Forces, estimated the Maoris' numbers at 90,000. Bishop Selwyn's calculation of the total was 60,000. But Governor Grey, in 1849, estimated the native population at 120,000; and Dr. Shortland, in 1851, agreed with the Governor's figures.

Even taking the lowest estimate, it is apparent that a combined effort by the natives in the “forties” or early “fifties” could have driven the pakeha population into the sea. Had the “Land League” or the Pai-Marire fanaticism been born ten page 6 years earlier, or had a military genius like Te Kooti led the Maori tribes against the whites in 1845 and 1846, the story of New Zealand would read very differently. Certainly, had the Maoris but realized their strength, had they then possessed any political organization beyond the tribal, it was in their power to have kept these Islands indefinitely in the semi-savage condition of 1840, tolerating only the missionaries and a few coast-trading pakeha-Maoris. Let it not be forgotten that had it not been for the true benevolence, the hospitality, and the continued friendship of such men as Tamati Waka and Patuone, Te Kawau, Te Wherowhero, and Te Puni, the British flag might not be flying in New Zealand to-day.

* From manuscript letter, 8th June, 1837, in Mr. Busby's letter-book, New Zealand archives.